Ngā Puke hadn’t been performed professionally for 20 years before Cian Elyse White made her directorial debut with the 2015 production at Te Pou. A simple two-hander, it’s an appropriate vehicle for a new director, and a story with which White clearly connects, “It’s a beautiful story about the power of love and the pull of the land.” However, set in the late 30s and early 40s, and written by John Broughton in the late 80s, it appears White has not been able to present Ngā Puke with much of a theatrical language beyond either of these eras.
Movement in the transitional sequences works beautifully, however, the Herald is a notoriously difficult space to fill, and that doesn’t mean actors should omit their characters’ internal drive for the sake of gesture, superfluous blocking, and miming with dialogue. It harks back to a time of highly dramatic performances, where everything is an exclamation and the comedy is played so hard one can almost hear the slide whistle. The result is that Kimo Houltham and Simone Walker don’t draw us into the world which Waru and Angie inhabit. Instead, they attempt to create a nostalgic idea of a generation that turn them into caricatures.
This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if the play avoided painting a romantic hue between its lead characters, and focussed on the text’s strength, but it never seems sure as to whether the relationship between Waru, the proud and naïve sheep farmer, and Angie, the educated and capricious artist, is a romantic or platonic one. While Auckland Live correctly label it a “beautiful friendship”, Broughton’s script and White’s direction certainly push for the former, with sudden jumps to a confession of love and a request for marriage, but there is no chemistry between Waru and Angie, or Houltham and Walker, to justify the shoe-horned and unnecessary girl-meets-boy trope.
As an artist, whakapapa can be a powerful influence on one’s work. As White says herself, “my lineage is my inspiration… my whakapapa makes me who I am.” However, as artists, we must work beyond influence and inspiration, and make the personal universal. When we do, we allow audiences to reflect the art we present them onto their own lives. Few have come close to losing someone they care about in a hospital bed in Crete in 1941, but that doesn’t mean the scene cannot resonate if the work taps into the universal sense of loss. And while plenty will undoubtedly stifle sniffles, as they did on opening night, I’m left cold by Walker’s crocodile tears.
It is this lack of truth that ultimately fails Ngā Puke. There is, however, one redeeming quality. The story of the land. There is no question that Broughton, who has also worked extensively in Māori and indigenous health, has imbued his script with fierce wonderment of the tangata whenua, and in that regard, Houltham, as directed by White, meets the play in a performative sense. Unfortunately, it is only one section of a show that otherwise presents a story trapped in the theatrical era in which it is set.